Why Gandhi holds state election despite violence
Polling continues through Sunday in India's northeastern state of Assam and, with it, a cycle of violence also continues. Over the weekend, another 150 people died, bringing the death toll to at least 270 in the name of free elections in this remote state.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Yet, ironically and tragically, these are elections which no one seems to want, except for the New Delhi government. The issue has divided the nation at large. At stake are 126 seats in the state assembly and 12 parliamentary slots. Assamese students have called for a boycott, protesting the inclusion on the electoral lists of some 4 million aliens, mostly from economically depressed Bangladesh. Either from conviction, or political expediency, opposition parties are boycotting the contest as well, making it a two-way race between a coalition of Marxists and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Congress (I) party.
This could allow the prime minister to score an unmerited victory in the polls - spread over Monday, Thursday and Sunday to allow redeployment of a paramilitary force.
Yet, the first day of balloting proved, for Mrs. Gandhi, a serious blow. Except in the Bengali areas, the turnout was embarrassingly low. Polling was impossible at a number of sites. And the weekend violence was the state's most serious and brutal since violence erupted in Assam in 1979.
At the root of the bloodshed and turmoil are two key issues, neither easily resolved. Could Mrs. Gandhi have postponed the polling without creating a constitutional crisis? Privately, some of her advisers say yes. And even more intractable is the question of illegal migration into Assam which is now into its third decade.
Assam, which elected its last state assembly in 1978, has seen the fall of four state governments, and escalating student violence, until March 1982, when ''presidential rule'' was instituted from Delhi. Under the Indian constitution, central rule cannot continue beyond one year, unless a state of il11l,0,14l,6 pnational emergency is declared.
Still stung by the bitter reminders of her nationwide ''emergency rule'' of 1975-77, the prime minister does not want to resurrect that image in either Indian or foreign minds. ''On the eve of an important nonaligned summit,'' one adviser said, ''she's not going to put the northeast . . . under martial law. Her house must be in order by the seventh of March (the opening date for the nonaligned summit in New Delhi). So, it was a gamble. Let's hope it doesn't backfire.''
As a marathon of pre-election discussions with party opposition leaders broke down, a showdown appeared inevitable between the patrician politician from Delhi and the activist students from Assam who have kept the state in the grip of violence since 1979. Over 60,000 special paramilitary forces have been airlifted from Delhi into the beleaguered state. Police officials are also assuming many electoral duties. Assamese civil servants, whose sympathies lie largely with the student protest, have refused any connection with the poll.
It is consequently difficult to say how many illegal aliens are today in Assam. A government spokesman has confirmed that, of Assam's population of 20 million, 4 million are from Bangladesh. ''But,'' he cautioned, ''some have been there for 30 years. We're now dealing with the second generation. So you can say 1 million or 4 million. Both are correct. It depends entirely on how you define an alien.''
The students have charged, with some justification, that Mrs. Gandhi's government has encouraged the immigration wave to enroll the new arrivals, nearly all of whom are pro-Gandhi, onto the electoral lists.
Perhaps the most tragic outcome of the election is that it will do nothing to solve the explosive issue of Muslim aliens from Bangladesh. And the violence makes it virtually impossible for any elected government to rule. And the election has all the hallmarks of an unreal event. Politicians are not running. Voters are not going to the polls. Linguistic and communal violence are at a level they've never reached before.
So, in the final analysis, it seems that little will be resolved by the election at gunpoint in far-off Assam.